Mathematicians say that if you halve each pace in crossing a room you will never reach the opposite wall. I’m beginning to think this true of crossing the Charles Bridge in Prague with William Hurt walking beside me. He has a slow, flat-footed gait and, every few yards, he lurches to a halt, turns to me, head cocked, and asks if I agree with him. I mentally pinch the bridge of my nose, try to ignore the headache I feel coming on, and wonder, in an abstract way, whether I shouldn’t just make a run for it and leave him standing there – rather as you would if you found yourself cornered by a wild-eyed man with a sandwich board on which the nighness of the end of the world was proclaimed.
We have been talking for about 20 minutes, and our conversation has so far been largely one-way and desultory. I’ve introduced myself and asked him something inane like how is he enjoying filming on location in Prague? He has answered with a thesis on the interconnectedness of quantum mechanics, Tibetan Buddhism, infected blood, the Gulf War, Chaos Theory and Third World population growth. Which is unsettling.
Although he doesn’t believe in using a short word (such as ‘religious’) when there is a longer, more confusing one available (such as ‘religiosity’), he does use recognisable words. It’s the way he deploys them that throws you. One writer compared the unruly Hurt sentence to a balloon being folded into a matchbox. To be fair, Hurt himself is aware of his condition, apologises frequently for ‘the length of his wordings’, and, jokingly, I think, puts it down to his being logorrhoeic. And, in fairness, he doesn’t seem pretentious – earnest, sweet, friendly and steeped in liberal angst, but not pretentious. It’s all part of the William Hurt Experience: what you get when you ask to go on the full, white-knuckle, loop-the-loop ride.
The tip of the fat Cuban cigar he is holding glows red and, so close does he stand when he talks, I can smell its smoke on his breath. It’s gone eight on a clear and still evening and the floodlit view of Prague from the bridge is beguiling: the spires of the St Vitus Cathedral to the northwest are lit in ghostly green, the castle is yellow, the Church of St Nicholas pink. Halfway across the bridge there is a statue of the blind St Luitgarde kissing Christ’s wounds; when eventually we reach it, we turn back and head for a nearby Spanish restaurant the actor knows and likes.
Once inside, he recovers his equilibrium a little. He’s less distracted. The words no longer pour out in a convoluted stream. He’s a bit more like those dry, poised, detached characters he played in all those intelligent Eighties films: The Big Chill, Children of a Lesser God, Gorky Park…But it is, of course, always a mistake to confuse an actor with his roles, especially a versatile one like Hurt. One thinks of the gullible, seedy lawyer he played in Body Heat; or the shallow and self-absorbed anchorman he played in Broadcast News; or the fluttery, sensitive, soft shouldered transvestite in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the role for which he won an Oscar in 1986. Anyway, he looks more relaxed now. He takes off his chunky sweater, switches off his mobile phone, grins broadly.
His movements are more graceful, his speech more languid and…elliptical. His looks are more familiar, too: that dramatic cleft in the chin, the intense blue eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses, the mouth that turns up at the corners so that it looks as though it’s half-smiling, even in repose. William Hurt is a few days shy of his 50th birthday but the years have dealt lightly with him: he’s still handsome, lean and tall – 6ft 2in – and his fine, thinning hair is still dirty blond. ‘I have changed,’ he protests with a throaty laugh. ‘I creak and rattle when I get out of bed in the morning. I try to work out but actually I’m falling apart like everyone else. My body is going. I’ve had cataracts and hernia operations and I’ve got a bad back.’
He orders gazpacho, pesto spaghetti and mineral water. I order vegetable lasagne, on his recommendation, and beer. When it arrives, I ask if he minds me drinking alcohol in front of him. He used to have a serious drink and drugs problem – remarkably, he was a vodka and lithium man and, since checking out of the Betty Ford clinic in 1986, he hasn’t touched a drop. ‘Doesn’t bother me at all,’ he says in his resonant yet sleepy American drawl, stretching out the vowels hypnotically. ‘Though someone told me it’s illegal here for me to chin-chin with you if you’re drinking alcohol and I’m not…Ahh, to heck with it!’ We clink glasses and he tells me about a phone call he’s just had with his children. ‘I have four, aged 17, ten, nine and six. It’s easy to keep in touch with them when I’m working abroad. Less with the oldest one because of things that have happened. But the boys [the nine- and ten-year-olds] live with me now. The custody thing was hard. The kids are not responsible… Well… This is a big question. Are they responsible for your fame? I don’t know, there’s a sentence that says no one is innocent.’
The ‘things that have happened’ are – complicated. William Hurt married his first wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt, in 1972; the couple separated after five years and divorced, amicably, after another five. From 1981 to 1984 he lived with Sandra Jennings, a ballerina with the New York City Ballet. They had a son, Alex. Hurt then lived with Marlee Matlin, an actress with whom he co-starred in Children of a Lesser God. In 1986 at the Hazelden Dependency Treatment Center in Minnesota he met Heidi Henderson. They married and had a pre-nuptial agreement which tied alimony payments to the ability of both parties to stay sober and clean. They had two sons, Samuel and William, but divorced acrimoniously after he claimed she had broken the agreement; he later won custody of the children. Then in 1989 Sandra Jennings reappeared, claiming that she and Hurt had had a common-law marriage, and accusing him of, among other things, violence, religious hallucinations, and urinating on the sofa.
The hearing, which was held at Room 1254 of the New York Supreme Court and followed daily on television by millions of viewers, became one of the most notorious ‘palimony’ cases in American legal history. Hurt won the case but compared the experience to having his skin steamed off in public. In 1993 he met the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire, by whom he had a daughter, Jeanne. Disillusioned with America, Hurt decided to reinvent himself as a European and that same year moved to Paris. ‘I prefer it when people don’t look at me cross-eyed when I speak of other peoples or of mortality or spirituality or transcendence of the material,’ he says, leaning back in his chair. ‘I’ve always felt that way about America. I don’t feel like an American. When I was young I used to break out into a sweat of embarrassment getting off a plane in Europe that had come from America. It was very hard for me because I had lived overseas. My best friends were Ivo in Guam, Sandy in Samoa; my mother’s best friend was Chinese; and in America no one knew these people existed. They can be so insular…I have a map of the Balkans next to my bed, so as I can follow what’s going on.’
William was six when his parents divorced – for a while, he lived with his mother and two brothers in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York; his father worked for the US Agency for International Development and directed a number of foreign-aid programmes around the world. ‘He was a remote figure when I was growing up,’ Hurt says. ‘But when I was older I went back into a computer that I had thrown away and culled out of its dormentness much of my father. In his last years I would take him on films with me. He felt proud, I think. He was extremely charming and bright but didn’t give himself any credit for the ways I found him to be brightest – his childishness, his sweetness, his sense of romance. It was funny about him, not until he was dying did he acknowledge his great spiritual side. It was like it lived with him there by his side all the time and he disavowed it.’
His father died in 1996, aged 86, of complications from liver cancer. ‘I held his hand as he died into the light.’ When Hurt was ten, his mother, Claire, a secretary, married her boss, Henry Luce III, son of the founder of Time magazine. The family moved into a 22-room apartment on the Upper East Side and William was sent to Middlesex, an expensive Massachusetts boarding school. He felt lonely there but discovered a talent for acting. He won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of performing arts in New York, where Kevin Kline and Robin Williams also studied, and went on to read theology at Tufts University. After this he took to the stage and performed in some 60 repertory and off-Broadway plays – David Mamet described him as the best Hamlet he had ever seen. In 1980 he starred in his first film, Altered States, directed by Ken Russell.
‘What would I have done if I hadn’t been an actor? I think I might have been a pretty decent teacher. I could have worked on boats. Maybe I would have ended up in a monastery. In fact, I do that. I go away. Being in a monastery would be a good way of life but I can’t imagine not being a father and not being with my kids. I would give anything to go back to school right now, or start a theatre laboratory, so that you don’t get into the gossip end of the business, so that you can work with people who aren’t afraid of the idea which I see as emotion. The problem is we don’t trust our emotions because we are so out of whack. But if you are in balance you can trust your feelings because they are your mind. I mean, this is part of your mind.’ He strokes my hand. I lean over my microphone and say: ‘Let the records show that William Hurt is stroking my hand.’ ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘Touching it. And that’s part of your mind. Everything. Every sense and interpretation. You can’t separate the thought. Look at Spinoza. Look at William Blake. I think Blake was very much there, very much home. He accounted for himself. He didn’t preoccupy himself with how misunderstood he was. He was integrating his consciousness. The yin and the yang…Discovering the feminine sensitive side of yourself doesn’t preclude masculinity at all.’
While William Hurt was on honeymoon with his first wife, his mother died from pancreatic cancer, aged 47. Of his imminent 50th birthday he says: ‘It’s something…a milestone…I’m grateful to my mom, who didn’t get much mileage out of the trip but…her wheels turned well.’ His stepfather, a strict Presbyterian, seems to have been a more influential figure in his formative years. ‘He was a churchgoer. Big time. I had connected up to my father’s lack of religiosity and began my contest with doctrine in my stepfather’s family.’
Our food arrives. ‘Excuse me,’ says Hurt. ‘I stop before I eat. I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but I stop. And it’s not so much a prayer but a sort of commemoration of something else. So excuse me. I’ll be gone for about 15 seconds.’ He closes his eyes. Thirty seconds pass. ‘Thank you,’ he says. I ask him what form his commemoration takes. ‘Whoever you are, thanks, thanks for the company, thanks for the food, thanks for reminding us to look for what is right…That’s why rehearsal is my flag.’
Hurt always requests six weeks rehearsal time before filming starts. He rarely gets it. This sometimes makes for tension between actor and director. Hector Babenco, the director of Kiss of the Spider Woman, is quoted as saying: ‘Hurt promises you a bad time and he delivers. How he made me suffer. Would I work with him again? Tomorrow.’ Hurt resents his reputation for being ‘difficult’, he argues that it is not a crime to try to deliver the best performance you can by rehearsing thoroughly. ‘You experience states of concentration,’ he explains. ‘Like hitting a golf ball. You have to think about it for a long time before you can stop thinking about it and do it.’
The characters he plays often seem lost in their thoughts, dreamy. Is this because he has become possessed by the role? ‘No. It’s technique. But I do try to be lost in something. I don’t think you’re co-ordinated until you stop telling the various parts of your body what to do…Acting is not lying. It’s not false emotion. Doesn’t everyone decide when and where and for whom to shed their tears? I’d like to act one more time in something where no one recognised me. I’d like to immerse myself in the craft, not in a schizophrenic way but by becoming the fabric of the conversation; where you occupy every cell instead of being self-conscious; where you walk through a mirror and it’s not you any more.’ He seems to have returned for a moment to the Hurt I first encountered – random thoughts and academic references spilling out, spiralling off, making him less fluent than jagged. Is this the authentic Hurt, I wonder, a man ill at ease with himself, or at least with his fame?
When asked if William was ever happy, his first wife once said: ‘How can you be happy if you never have a quiet mind… Most people will just eat a hamburger, he will want to know where the cow was born.’ Hurt doesn’t think success has brought him happiness, necessarily, which is why he feels wary of it. ‘Success isn’t going to help you deal with loneliness or help you make your peace with solitude. There are times when someone on the street says, “Are you William Hurt?” and I will say, “No, not at the moment.” I’m more myself when I’m whittling wood or doodling, doing something with my hands. That leaves me free to be played on. Played through.’
He has trained himself not to look in mirrors, he adds. And he never watches his old movies, he sees them once and that’s it. ‘There were many ancient words for vanity,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t just mean being self-centred. I don’t want to be my ego’s fool.’ Glenn Close, his co-star in The Big Chill, says that when Hurt stopped drinking he became more accessible, more forgiving of himself. ‘When you hate yourself it’s pretty hard to deal with other people,’ she said.  His self-loathing seems to have been connected with a sense of rejection he felt as a child. I ask him if he likes himself more these days. ‘I get along better with myself than I did then. I had a hard time for a while. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about myself. I was trying to assimilate conflicting impulses. I mean, a neurosis is defined as mutually exclusive goals, so how do you get everything going in the same direction? I came out of an environment where there was lots of conflict. My mother grew up in poverty on the prairies of eastern Oregon and was abandoned by her parents.
‘My grandmother was self-destructive to the point of suicide…She did commit suicide in a very gruesome way when I was 15. [He tells me how but says he would rather not see it in print.] It was a shock. I later worried that I might have inherited the urge to suicide. Your job in life is to accept a way of being that is not defined as conflict…Growing up I missed my father a lot. Had separation anxiety. Worried that people I loved would always leave… I used to have a terror dream. No story, just formless, infinite minglings of darkness. Even as I began to craft a sentence that would tell me who I was, it would be eaten away. Years later, when I stopped drinking and began to reconstruct, I had waking dreams that I hadn’t had for many years, and suddenly I would be in two realities at the same time. I would be talking to someone and this dream would be going on at the same time. It was a very visceral experience. It went on for two years.’
I wonder what effect his parents’ divorce had on his own relationships, whether it prevented him from falling in love completely. ‘How many times have I been in love? Really really really? There was some love in all my relationships, but twice it was more than other times. One changed everything for me. One did and still does give me nothing but strength and gratitude.’ (He prefers not to tell me who the one is because ‘private is private and things are not as good if they are not…kept for oneself’.)
It is nearly one o’clock in the morning. Hurt apologies for talking too much, says it’s only because he gets nervous, and he quotes a 14th-century rabbi who said, ‘If you can hear yourself talking, shut up: leave the talking to God.’  It’s raining as we walk back to our hotel along tiny lanes, over the wet cobbles of a square and past gloomy baroque buildings with sloping roofs and crumbling faades. I ask him if he ever feels as if he has sold his soul in order to become famous. I see his sad smile in the orange glow of the streetlights. ‘How could I admit that? It would be like damning myself. But it isn’t necessarily good fortune to be a success. Fame is a vacuum. It doesn’t necessarily bring you pleasure.’ His pleasures in life, he adds, come from fly-fishing, playing chess and flying small planes. ‘The ones I fly are more like kites than proper planes, but I enjoy doing it because when I’m up there I have my destiny in my own hands. I always carry a compass,’ he says, unzipping his coat to show me it. It’s a big one, the sort you use for map-reading. ‘That’s north,’ he says, holding it up. ‘Which means we’re heading to the river.’
In the morning, over breakfast, he tells me he slept badly because he was worrying about whether movie stars really are just narcissists who make a pact with the devil. It is only when he picks up the threads of the previous night’s conversation that I realise he doesn’t suffer from intellectual dyslexia, as I had assumed upon first meeting him. Once you tune into his wavelength you see there is method in his madness, a structure to his thinking. It’s just that, like William Blake, he is sometimes overwhelmed by his thoughts.
This morning he is obsessed with the theme of shame: how Clinton gave in to his; how Jesus went to the Cross despising it. Is this evidence of a guilt complex about something formless and dark in his life? Or a Christ complex? Or impostor syndrome? It’s anyone’s guess. A few days later, as the e-mails start arriving, I discover that there’s one complex he definitely suffers from: persecution. The letters are very long, thousands of ‘wordings’, and he writes like he speaks, with the same dramatic pauses and labyrinthine syntax. In one he broods upon how the media take famous people hostage in their own space, how interviewers always betray the interviewee. For a few days I wonder if he is being manipulative, trying to compromise me, then I conclude he is just being insecure. After all, he writes also of ‘the old nightmare times’ when the press went through his rubbish bins and people spat on his window outside courtrooms and tracked him down in London while his wife was pregnant and feeling hysterical. It had been cruel of the judges to hold the trial in front of the cameras, he adds, because adults know things that children are not ready for. ‘They never once thought of the effect it would have on our six-year-old son.’ He adds that Sandra Jennings has turned out to have ‘much of the qualities and loyalty and love to our son that I valued in our love, before it got bruised’.
The letters make me suspect that part of William Hurt never fully recovered from that legal battle with Jennings. ‘Whatever good I have done as an artist is obscured by it,’ he writes. It has left him vulnerable and raw, delirious and disconnected, desperate to be understood. That defining trauma has also left him hypersensitive to criticism – yet unable to resist the chance to expose himself to scrutiny in this interview. Perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome he suffers from, the pscyhological condition that describes the mutual dependence between kidnapper and victim.  But the letters are touching, too. In one he tells me it’s his 50th birthday. In another he quotes from the book about Augustine he is reading at the moment. In a tender one, from Paris, he writes: ‘People cry alone and they can laugh alone too. My daughter laughed and laughed in her sleep the other night. It wasn’t for anyone else. She was just laughing.’


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.